Jessica Bailey, like all other sixth-graders in her Nevada school district, heard the spiel from a local police officer on resisting peer pressure to do drugs. But Jessica knows as much as any cop about the human cost of addiction -- and about the profound implications of getting caught in the criminal-justice system.
Jessica's mother was in prison on drug charges when the D.A.R.E. officer visited her school, and her father is out of the picture. At night Jessica cuddles up with her stuffed pink bunny rabbit and by day she pursues a black belt in tae kwon do. Her grandfather, who has custody of her, says that at 11 years of age, she can already spot a drug buy going down on Reno's streets.
For help in life, Jessica attends group counseling sessions for the children of inmates that is run by a local community organization on a shoestring budget, and she goes on outings with Janet Walford, her mentor in the Big Sisters program. "She's a good listener," Jessica says, "and a good friend."
At least someone is paying attention. The government does not keep track of such children, or even know how many there are. Social scientists have an idea, however, and the numbers are staggering. Moreover, various studies show a pronounced, if hard-to-measure, correlation between a parent in prison and a child later turning to crime.
"The significance of that" correlation, says Denise Johnston, co-founder of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, "is that the next generation of prisoners is going to come from the current generation of prisoners."
In Washington, and a handful of state capitals, this message is beginning to sink in. The question is, What should government do about it? Many of the nation's most prominent criminologists have lined up behind one obvious solution -- cut back on the long-term incarceration of so many drug offenders. But repealing harsh sentencing laws is politically harder than passing them.
Social scientists champion another approach that raises fewer hackles: mentoring the children of inmates. President Bush has saluted these efforts several times, including once in a State of the Union address. "It is a necessary program," Bush said last year, lauding a mentor in an organization called Amachi.
And it's cheaper: about $1,000 a year to mentor an inmate's child versus $26,650 a year to incarcerate a prisoner. Three years ago, the Health and Human Services Department dispersed about $9 million in grants for mentoring. In the current fiscal year, that number will approach $50 million, which represents a big increase, but only a fraction of the need.
"All the Kids Should Count"
A generation ago, the United States embarked on a vast social experiment. Facing soaring crime rates and armed with research indicating that a small number of habitual criminals were responsible for a large share of the mayhem, state legislatures and Congress, backed by governors and presidents from both parties, enacted a montage of measures, including "mandatory minimums" for drug and gun offenses, "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws, and "truth-in-sentencing" decrees that virtually abolished parole.
A prison population already on the rise ballooned. In 1970 on any given day, 200,000 people were locked up in America's state and federal prisons. Thirty-six years later, that figure has increased to more than 1.4 million. When the 700,000 in local jails are added, the number of people behind bars comes to 2.1 million -- four times the average per capita rate in previous decades.
Victims' advocates are quick to say that the effects on the nation's streets were even more dramatic: In the past decade, murder, rape, robbery, and assault have declined annually, not just per capita but in raw numbers as well. Consequently, these laws remain popular with the public and with legislators. But many of the nation's most prominent criminologists maintain that the real causes for declining criminal activity are a robust economy, better policing techniques, and the end of "Baby Boom II." The return to demographic norms means that fewer young males -- the key crime cohort -- are out on the streets.
This debate will not be reconciled anytime soon. But both sides agree on a couple of things: The children of these inmates are innocent of any crime, and a society that locks up parents has some obligation to their children. Both a moral component and a self-interested one attach to this equation. The altruistic rationale for action is that the children of offenders are also victims, and often come from the most-disadvantaged families in American society. The self-preservation component stems from that same point. Without policies to break the cross-generational recidivism rate, any social policy that puts more people behind bars is intrinsically self-defeating because it practically ensures future generations of offenders.
Calculating by the average number of children per inmate shows that at least 2.8 million minors in this country have a parent behind bars. Only about half of them were living with those parents when they were arrested, but that is scant consolation. In fact, 2.8 million children is a vast undercount. The reason is that most of the people incarcerated in the United States in any given year are in local jails, not prisons -- and jails have revolving doors. The annual inmate counts, taken on June 30 and December 31, provide only one-day snapshots of how many people are behind bars at that moment. What they don't reveal is how many people were locked up for some period of time during the calendar year. Johnston, a Southern California pediatrician who has worked with inmates' children for two decades, points out that the Los Angeles County jail system housed more than 100,000 inmates in 2004. Yet the census counted only 22,000, Johnston says.
"So if you do it that way, you're missing 80,000 people in Los Angeles County alone, and if you're talking about the effects on children, you have to consider the mother of preschoolers who served three months in jail -- and missed being tallied," Johnston said. "All the kids should count."
She estimates that the number of children whose parents have been jailed or imprisoned sometime in their child's life surpasses 10 million. Using different criteria, W. Wilson Goode, the head of a Philadelphia-based mentoring group, estimates that 7.3 million children in the United States have a parent who is behind bars, on parole, or under supervision by the criminal-justice system. It is those numbers that make the stakes so high.
"I'm here on behalf of your children," was the way that Goode put it to inmates in a Hampton, Va., jail. "The reason is that if we do nothing -- if we do nothing -- seven out of 10 of your children will end up where you are."
Another Philadelphia Story
"City of Brotherly Love" is not Philadelphia's civic slogan. It's what the word "philadelphia" means in Greek, a name that William Penn, the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, chose to promote a sense of community. Those who follow sports know that Philadelphians often mock Penn's vision. Philadelphia is where they boo the home team, and where Eagles fans once threw snowballs at a guy dressed up as Santa. Phillies fans booed Mayor John Street at the ceremonies for a new baseball park that opened in 2004.
But when it comes to helping the children of prison inmates, most roads lead to Philadelphia. The first modern American "penitentiary" -- its religious roots and redemptive goals are revealed in that word -- was operated by the Quakers, who refitted Philadelphia's Walnut Street jail in the late 1700s. One of their initial reforms was to remove children from the prison. That sensibility remains alive in Philadelphia, where brotherly (and sisterly) love is on display at the national headquarters of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
Big Brothers got its start in the earliest days of the 20th century after an Ohio-born New York City newsman, Ernest K. Coulter, helped his paper launch a crusade for a juvenile court system. The campaign succeeded, and in 1902, New York created its first Children's Court. Judge Julius Mayer, appointed to preside over it, noticed that a huge percentage of the troubled boys in the system had no father at home. The concept of mentoring young people from outside their own families had been catching on in the world of social service, and Mayer personally recruited New Yorkers to mentor the wayward boys who came through his courtroom. This effort impressed Coulter, who left the news business to clerk in Mayer's court (while attending law school). In 1904, Coulter was invited to speak at a luncheon at the Men's Club of the Central Presbyterian Church of New York.
"There is only one possible way to serve that [troubled] youngster," Coulter said at the luncheon. "And that is to have some earnest, true man volunteer to be his big brother, to look after him, help him do right; make the little chap feel that there is at least one human being in this great city who takes a personal interest in him, who cares whether he lives or dies. I call for a volunteer."
As he made that request, Coulter raised his own hand. Thirty-nine Presbyterian men were in the audience. Thirty-nine hands rose along with Coulter's. "Big Brothers" was launched. In time, it became a national movement, relocated to Philadelphia, and merged with Big Sisters. Their famous formula was well known, and simple: At least one hour a week (and two hours twice a month) of quality time between an adult and a child, for at least one year.
But did the program make a difference in the lives of the young people being mentored? Big Brothers Big Sisters was convinced that it did, and in the mid-1990s, the group took a rare step in the nonprofit world: It hired an outside authority to evaluate its approach.
The organization chosen was another Philadelphia nonprofit, Public/Private Ventures, chartered to improve the effectiveness of social programs for the needy. With grant money from the Pew Charitable Trusts (also based in Philadelphia) and others, P/PV tapped two scholars on its staff, Joseph P. Tierney and Jean Baldwin Grossman, to design and administer a study comparing the behavior of kids being mentored by a Big Brother or a Big Sister with their peers on a waiting list.
"Big Brothers Big Sisters was supremely confident that what they were doing was right," Tierney recalled. "I was not."
He and Grossman compared rates of school attendance, academic performance, aggressive behavior, relationships with friends and family members, and the avoidance of drugs and alcohol. "We ran the models, and the results came in: positive, positive, positive, positive, positive," Tierney said. "I nearly fell out of my chair."
Tierney had empirical proof that Judge Mayer's intuition was right. Little Brothers and Little Sisters were 46 percent less likely to initiate drug use than their peers, and 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol. They were one-third less likely to hit a classmate, and half as likely to skip classes. Their grades were better. The study attracted scant attention from the mainstream press, but its significance was not missed in social-science circles.
"These findings were extraordinary," recalls University of Pennsylvania political scientist John DiIulio, the former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, "and the implications even more so."
The Education of "Big John"
DiIulio is a stout, gregarious South Philly guy who, after earning his Ph.D. from Harvard in political science, made a name for himself in academia in the late 1980s and early 1990s by advancing the theory that America's then-soaring violent crime rates resulted from the coddling of criminals.
He promoted his view in outlets ranging from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times under memorable headlines such as "Prisons Are a Bargain" and "Let 'Em Rot." In a provocative 1995 essay in The Weekly Standard, DiIulio warned that falling crime rates were illusionary, because "the demographic fuses of America's ticking crime bomb are already burning." Who would bring this impending crime wave? According to DiIulio, the answer was America's increasingly remorseless juvenile delinquents. The headline said it all: "The Coming of the Super-Predators."
It was a choice of words that DiIulio would come to regret. For starters, the predicted wave of violence never materialized. Instead, even as Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole used "super-predators" imagery in his 1996 White House bid, crime rates kept falling. A second factor that gave DiIulio pause was his own scholarship. While conservative social critics -- and politicians of both parties -- were quick to credit the rise in the incarceration rate with lowering the violent-crime rate in the United States, DiIulio and his research partners were discovering that a large percentage of those being locked up -- many for very long prison terms -- were first-time drug offenders who posed little threat to anyone except themselves.
As the evidence accumulated that the United States was incarcerating record numbers of people who were essentially drug addicts, DiIulio's own views evolved. He publicly questioned the wisdom of mandatory drug sentences and began referring to juvenile offenders as "kids" instead of "predators." Kids, he said, need love and guidance from a mature adult -- adding that they were unlikely to find such role models in prison. By 1999, DiIulio was writing op-ed pieces with headlines such as "Drug Sentences Run Amok" and "Two Million Prisoners Are Enough." New research and new facts had convinced DiIulio that a different direction was needed.
The emphasis, he believed, must be on breaking a self-perpetuating cycle that shoved the same individuals -- and the same families -- through the pitiless revolving doors of the criminal-justice system year after year. The Tierney study had shown that mentoring the children of inmates was one obvious solution. Doing it on a national scale would entail enlisting government, faith-based community groups, private-sector donors, philanthropies, and individual volunteers in the same efforts.
This principle was not strictly conservative, and it wasn't partisan either. In 1996, President Clinton signed a welfare reform measure that encouraged states to allow community and faith-based groups to provide federally funded services to the needy. In his bid to succeed Clinton, Vice President Gore warned his party against embracing "hollow secularism," while in Texas expanding the opportunities of faith-based organizations to serve the poor became the rhetorical cornerstone of Gov. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
Bush began by reaching out to a professor from Philadelphia: DiIulio was invited to Austin in February 1999 for a meeting with a small group of social policy experts. Bush took a liking to DiIulio, often giving him the last word on a topic.
At one point, the governor asked the group for "one big new idea on compassion." DiIulio replied that America was a land where, on any given day, 2 million children had a mother or father in prison or jail. The best way to address this predicament, he told Bush, would be a national initiative "matching low-income children of prisoners with loving, caring, year-round, lifelong adult mentors mobilized from inner-city churches." Bush seemed stunned by the number of children involved, and was impressed with DiIulio's proposed solution. Before DiIulio left Austin, Bush gave him a bear hug and a nickname.
By the summer of 1999, the Bush campaign's domestic policy shop had brought "Big John" into the loop on social issues, and he was drafting speeches on compassion for the governor. DiIulio believed that faith-based volunteer groups, in general, and the mentoring of at-risk kids, in particular, were a big part of the answer to America's social pathologies. Narrowing the focus even further, DiIulio proposed establishing a systematic model to mentor the children of prison inmates.
DiIulio and Tierney were more interested in faith-based groups than ones that depended on government grants, so they looked for a way to adopt the mentoring techniques of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America without being part of it. Big Brothers Big Sisters is a secular organization and, as such, has easy access to local, state, and federal money.
They considered partnering with Angel Tree, which gives Christmas presents to the children of inmates. But for all of the goodwill that Angel Tree sows, it is not a mentoring group -- it's an evangelizing Christian program run by Prison Fellowship Ministries. This wasn't a perfect fit, either.
Tierney and DiIulio then attempted to spin off an organization from the pastors and lay leaders in Philly's inner-city churches, but this approach quickly bogged down in local politics. Finally it dawned on DiIulio and Tierney that if they wanted a faith-based (but ecumenical) community group to mentor inmates' children, they would have to start one. So they did. After picking up some seed money and office space, they opened their doors in September 2000.
There was one catch, though: Where could they find a dynamic leader to run their group?
Who Knows What God Has Brought Us?
At the beginning of this decade, Wilson Goode tended to be remembered outside Philadelphia -- if he was remembered at all -- as the mayor who authorized the 1985 bombing of a row house occupied by an armed back-to-nature cult known as MOVE. Philadelphians remembered that incident, too, but they knew more about Goode: that the MOVE tragedy happened in his second year in office; that he served two more years, ran for re-election, and served another four; that when he left office, Philadelphia's bond rating had been restored; and that Goode had gone on to serve in the Clinton administration's Education Department and, while doing so, had prepared himself for a second career in the ministry by earning a doctorate in theology.
But there were things about Goode that not even his close friends knew. One of them was that he was the son of an incarcerated father. And that, as a kid, Goode was headed for trouble himself until the intercession of a pastor and his wife. "They became my Big Brother and Big Sister," he recalled. "When John DiIulio came to me, the question that he was really posing was, 'Did I want to use the influence and knowledge I'd accumulated to enrich myself -- or to enrich the lives of others?' It took me about 30 seconds to decide."
The group Goode agreed to lead is Amachi -- its name the inspiration of Tim Merrill, a Baptist pastor from Camden, N.J., who helped get the program running. Merrill was on the Internet one day when he came across the word "amachi," defined in the Ibo language (which is spoken in Nigeria) as meaning "who knows what God has brought us through this child?"
Amachi also turned to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the mentoring group that had originally inspired DiIulio and is headquartered in the city.
When DiIulio paid a personal call on Judy Vredenburgh, the president and chief executive officer of BBBSA, he couldn't have found a more receptive audience.
"I told John, 'Put your sales materials away,' " Vredenburgh recalled. "Mentoring children whose families are in the criminal-justice system is so deep in our history and culture. Remember, it started with Ernest Coulter -- in juvenile court!"
Big Brothers Big Sisters was the logical group for Amachi to tap into. It already knew how to match mentors and kids, and it already was mentoring thousands of kids with parents in prison. Second, Big Brothers Big Sisters could show faith-based groups how to avoid church-state pitfalls.
"Although a lot of our volunteers are religious people, Big Brothers Big Sisters is a completely secular organization -- and that's precisely why we're important in this formula," says Vredenburgh.
If mentoring is an ecumenical calling, it's a bipartisan one as well. Sen. John Ensign, a conservative Nevada Republican, is a Big Brother. So is Rep. Adam Schiff, a liberal California Democrat. The two have sponsored joint resolutions in support of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Last summer, they quietly encouraged their colleagues on Capitol Hill to become mentors.
"Having a Little Brother has made a tremendous impact on my life," Ensign said at a June event marking the group's 100th anniversary. He then introduced his "Little," a high school senior named Donzale Butler whom Ensign has mentored since the boy was 9. Schiff told of being matched with a boy named David McMillan, then 7 years old, who filled out a questionnaire saying that his three wishes were a Big Brother, a puppy, and "a beautiful world." That was two decades ago. Schiff's "Little" isn't so little anymore. McMillan graduated from Yale and wrote for Judging Amy, a CBS television drama about a single mom who worked as a juvenile court judge.
Going to Jail
One hurdle for Amachi is that inmates' children often come from rough neighborhoods. A second dilemma is that the children of inmates are an especially vulnerable population. Goode worried that volunteers would sign up with the best of intentions but quit when the demands of this extra-challenging group of kids and their caregivers got to be too much. His concerns led Goode to the sanctuary of the inner city, to predominantly African-American churches where the mentors would already know the neighborhood -- and know the score.
In recruiting sessions, Goode bluntly told the would-be mentors that if they weren't sure they could stick with the program for a year, not to bother, because if they faded away they would inflict more heartbreak on the children. Goode is convinced that the children of inmates are even more susceptible to feelings of abandonment, and for that reason, Amachi reverses the order by which matches are made.
"Big Brothers Big Sisters says you get the children first, then you get the volunteers," Goode told a group of pastors and social workers in Hampton. "My philosophy is that you get the volunteers first -- for this group of children. If you find a child who wants a mentor and it takes six months to find a volunteer, you've exacted another stress on that family. In Philadelphia, we had 450 volunteers before we had a single child."
Another singular obstacle facing Amachi is obtaining parental permission. Simply put, if you want to mentor the children of inmates, you need to go where the inmates are -- the cell blocks of prisons and jails -- and get signed permission. That's not easy, particularly among the men, who typically were not the caregivers of their children before going to prison. These men, moreover, often fathered multiple children with different women and faced questions of paternity.
Some inmates have trouble envisioning other people mentoring their sons and daughters. It's common for an inmate to tell Goode: "What you need to do, Reverend Goode, is get me out of here so I can go home and mentor my own kids." Goode is not unsympathetic, but he urges them to be realistic and to think of their children's future.
Some inmates bring that up themselves, quite poignantly. In one Pennsylvania penitentiary, Goode met a man serving a long stretch who said he'd met his father for the first time in the prison yard -- his dad was an inmate in the same facility. "I have a son who I have not seen," this prisoner added in tones of resignation. "I guess I will see him for the first time in jail, too."
During another prison recruiting trip, a female inmate introduced Goode to her cellmate -- her own daughter.
On his visit to Hampton, Goode is scheduled to take two dozen volunteers -- and one journalist -- inside the local jails. Eighteen sullen men, 14 of whom are black, file into a room in their orange jumpsuits. About half of them raise their hands when asked if they have children. But only four or five agree to fill out the card that could give their kids a mentor. A young inmate who has five children -- he can't be older than 24 -- is not one of them. Tall and handsome, sporting dreadlocks and a tight smile, he pushes the paper away.
Goode confesses later that he'd rather do this work only in women's prisons, but adds, "You have to reach some of the men. But it's hard."
Afterward, Goode takes a smaller group to a lockup across town to meet with nine female inmates. Their racial ratio is the same as the men's -- two are white -- but everything else about this encounter is different.
"How many of you have children?" he asks Every hand goes up. This time the women are rapt while Goode tells his personal story. When he explains what "Amachi" means, one murmurs, "Amen!"
When he asks who wants to fill out a card, they all reach out.
"My son is 3. Is that too young?"
"My boy is 24," adds another. "He's in the service. He's doing OK. But my 19-year-old -- "
As he walks out of the cell block, all nine women break into applause. In the elevator, Goode is shown the cards with the children's names on them, and he smiles wanly and lets out a deep sigh.
Love Is Where We Find It
A central underlying tension in the mentoring movement is that the mere presence of an unrelated adult in a youngster's life can serve as a constant, if unspoken, rebuke of the person who is supposed to give children direction -- the parent.
For this reason, mentoring advocates are careful to emphasize studies suggesting that successful Big Brother and Big Sister matches bolster the bond between a parent and a child. "We're not here trying to replace the parent," Goode tells inmates and mentor volunteers alike. "Research shows that when there is a mentor in the life of the child, the relationship between the parent and child becomes stronger."
Still, that persistent challenge to Goode from inmates -- "Get me out of here so I can mentor my own kids" -- haunts this issue.
Since the closing of the District of Columbia's Lorton Prison in Northern Virginia four years ago, Carol Fennelly, a longtime Washington activist on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, has worked tirelessly to keep the District's children connected to fathers who were sent to far-flung prisons in other states.
Fennelly's imaginative solutions include teleconferencing from behind prison walls; "Summer Camp Behind Bars," in which kids visit their inmate fathers in the penitentiary (often for the first time); and the Father to Child Reading Program. Fennelly herself goes into prison, tapes an inmate father reading a book, and then mails his child the tape and the book.
Late last summer, Fennelly hosted a picnic for some of these children, and some recently paroled dads. Jasmine Vivian Williams, 8, of Temple Hills, Md., showed up wearing a bright yellow outfit, along with her brother and mother -- and, best of all, her father, Irn Williams. The girl volunteers that the books her dad read on tape were The Popcorn Book and When the Wind Stops.
"What's the best part of today?" she asks, repeating the question. "Just having him here."
But inmates' homecomings do not always have happy endings, and sometimes loving adults find themselves picking up the pieces. Out in Reno, Jessica Bailey got her mom back on New Year's Eve; she had been released from prison a few weeks early. But Jessica's joy was short-lived. Earlier this month, her mother was dropped off at the local Department of Motor Vehicles and just vanished, apparently into the swamp of drugs and mental distress.
"We haven't heard from her, and that's not usually a good sign," says Don Bailey, Jessica's grandfather.
"Jessica is devastated," says Elaine Voigt, who founded My Journey Home, a faith-based support group for the families of inmates. "Thank God, she has her grandfather."
Her grandfather is thankful, in turn, for the presence in Jessica's life of a woman unrelated to them. He thinks his granddaughter is doing all right, considering. She has taken up a new sport, gymnastics, and thanks to the adults around her, she realizes that her mother's problems and actions are not her fault. She also takes solace in the company of "Big Sister." Last Monday, Janet took Jess to see Nanny McPhee, a movie Jessica enjoyed so much that she made her grandfather take her again.
"Jessica just loves being with her," Don reports. "It's good."
Lock 'Em Up
The number of people incarcerated in state and federal
prisons has risen rapidly since the early 1970s due to a
crackdown on drug abuse and tougher sentencing laws.
Federal and state prisoners
The number of people in jails has risen as well, although
the federal government collected national statistics only
sporadically until the 1990s.
Inmates in local jails
SOURCE: Bureau of Justice Statistics